As part of an ongoing housekeeping (blog-keeping?) process, I’ll be compiling my short stories into one-post collections. It should make it easier for you to find and enjoy them. This post ‘Turnkey’ contains parts 1-7 of that series.
The short stories will also be edited and updated, so this is the perfect chance for you to rediscover an old favourite or catch up on something you missed!
Gil grasped the key tight between her cold fingers. It was solid brass, rusted around the edges and with sharp teeth. The key opened a door to somewhere deep underneath the tower. A place where men should not go.
I shouldn’t have it. I shouldn’t be holding it.
One of the other turnkeys had left it on the mess table and Gil had been unable to resist. The thirst to know what was behind the door had been overpowering. It had gnawed at her until, without even knowing what she was doing, Gil had snatched up the key.
This is wrong. Am I mad?
Now she stood in front of the thick oak planks which separated the ground level of the tower from whatever lay beneath. With her other hand, she stroked the door. It almost felt warm to the touch, and the sensation drew her closer towards it.
Step away now. Run!
Gil slid the heavy key into the lock and twisted.
There was no click, no movement and no wave of warm air. The key was stuck. Gil tried to twist it first one way and then the other. Finally, she tried to yank it out of the lock in frustration.
A snapping sound came from inside the locking mechanism. Through the cracks around the door came a short, sharp blast of cold air. It smelt of damp, darkness and decay.
I should run now. Nobody will know. I’ve only come this far. I needn’t go further.
Gil pulled the door open and stepped down into the opening. ‘Is anyone down there?’ she called.
There was no reply. Then, through the veil of darkness, she saw a shock of light hair flash past the bottom of the steep, narrow stairway. Gil descended towards it and was enveloped in a thick mantle of blackness which drowned out the light of the living.
Gil was chasing a shadow in a place where everything was darkness and fleeting shades of grey and black. Her heart was pounding and beads of sweat stood out on her brow. But whether this was from fear or excitement, she was not certain.
I should be afraid. I should be terrified. Scream. Run. Escape.
A head of bright hair shone ahead like a beacon in the black dungeon, and then it was gone again around a sharp corner.
Who are you? Where are you leading me?
There were voices all around her. They cried out from behind thick iron and oak doors, some sounding pained, others angry and yet more screaming incoherently at nothing.
As the insistent, maddening wall of noise rose around her, Gil heard a faint sound trilling behind it. The voice was soft and melodious; it seemed to be singing. Nothing could have seemed more alien in that dismal subterranean dungeon than a song.
Each individual hair on the back of Gil’s neck was standing on end. Goosebumps ran up her arms and back, as though her skin had been pricked by a thousand tiny needles. The cacophony of screaming, hysterical laughter and eerie singing around her was too much for her tortured mind to bear.
I can’t stand it. Let me go. Please, let me leave.
Her own curiosity and the allure of the mysterious voice were holding her captive. They dragged her forwards. Heavy chains of iron pulling tight around her neck, forged in her imagination.
But just as she was preparing to turn and run back up towards the daylight, Gil caught sight of the door. Its surface gleamed like a plate of silver in the dark stone wall. Touching it warily with one finger, it felt smooth and cold.
It had been fashioned from thick iron with minute care so that there was not the smallest of cracks between the door and the wall. In its centre was a large, elaborately crafted lock. A small keyhole presented the only opening in the entrance to the cell.
I’m mad. I know I am. But I have to know. I have to see you, feel you.
Gil took the brass key out of her pocket and slipped it into the hole. It stuck halfway in and could not be pushed further. This was not the right key. But the grating sound had drawn the attention of the cell’s occupant. A faint trickle of air whispered through the keyhole, brushing against Gil’s trembling hand.
‘Is somebody out there?’ a voice asked. A voice she had never heard before, but which was so familiar it might have been an echo of her own.
How can that be? Am I dreaming?
‘I’m here,’ Gil replied.
She realized at once how foolish this response was. Luckily, her heart was still lodged in her throat and the only sound she made was a hoarse croak. Another breath slithered out past her shaking fingers.
‘Who are you?’ the echo asked.
‘My name is Gil,’ she replied.
‘Were you chasing me, Gil?’
Was that fear in the echo’s voice?
‘I think I was. How did you get out of your cell? How did you get back in?’
‘That’s a silly question isn’t it, Gil? I have the key, of course.’
These words sent a spasm of fear arcing up Gil’s spine. She was deep underground in the dungeons of the Tower, an island fortress holding the most vile and murderous creatures. Worse still, only the truly powerful and wicked were kept away from the sunlight. The caverns. The tombs
I was mad to come down here at all. Now I might never leave.
But that was not what made Gil’s blood turn to ice. This door was solid iron, built to withstand the burning force of dark magic which would tear a wooden door to splinters. Whoever or whatever was locked away behind it was capable of crushing men like flies, and they had the key to their own cell. Gil was standing a mere few feet away from certain death and there was nothing to shield her from it.
The voice on the other side of the door was like warm honey. It comforted and reassured her that she had nothing to fear. Gil leaned closer and pressed her ear against the keyhole.
I want to see you. I want to feel you.
Gil opened her eyes. She was standing at the edge of the tower’s upper parapet, looking out across the churning, broiling sea of ink-black waves. Dark storm clouds were gathering overhead, stretching to the edge of the horizon and blotting out the sky.
‘How did I get here?’ she muttered.
The last thing that she remembered was pressing her ear to the keyhole of one of the subterranean cells. One moment the smell of cloying damp, human refuse and cold iron had been in her nostrils, the next she was breathing in fresh salt air.
Gil could feel chills tickling their way up her spine and down her arms, having nothing to do with the blustering wind which whipped across the prison’s roof. She was confused, feeling lost and somehow separated from her own mind.
I’m mad. Truly, I’ve lost my mind. Did I leave it in the caverns? Was I ever there?
There was a hole in her memory. Its shape was still discernible, in that she knew it was something of the utmost importance she had forgotten. Gil screwed her eyes tight and focused her mind on trying to haul the thought back from the shadowy recesses of her memory.
‘Are you well, Mistress Gil?’
It was the voice of one of the other wardens. Gil turned and saw the square shoulders and broad belly of Mag. His expansive, firm gut tumbled out over the top of a thick leather belt, his steel-capped boots and heavy gloves stained by many years of hard use.
‘I’m alright, Mag. Just keep to yourself.’
The portly warden gave Gil a curious look between a pair of narrowed eyelids, but said no more. He walked away with the long brass keys jangling on his belt. The sound brought a sudden wave of panic washing over her.
Where are my keys? I’ve lost them!
Her hands shot to her waist and cold sweat pricked her brow as they failed to find the precious keys. At length, she discovered them hanging by a thin leather strap at the back of her belt. Relief hit her with such force that she staggered, almost losing her footing and toppling from the top of the high tower.
Gil looked at the long brass stems and sharp teeth. Her heart froze. There was one key too many. It hung there, at the end of the leather thong, black sides smooth as polished marble and teeth as sharp as razors.
Please. No. I’m imagining it. It’s not really there. Wake up, Gil.
It was a key she had heard of. Everyone knew its name. But it was one she had no business holding. The Hellkey, opener of forbidden doors.
Gil was back at the ancient door leading down into the forgotten depths of the tower. But while the corridor leading to it and the stairway descending from it were unchanged, the door itself was not the same.
Its surface was rudely carved oak, two hands’ widths deep and roughly finished. Her hand attracted splinters as she brushed it against the grain of the wood.
Where before no air had escaped through the edges where door met frame, now there were narrow gaps through which it seemed that the whole dungeon beneath was breathing. The place beneath the tower was alive, pulsing with dark energy and entreating Gil to enter it’s forgotten depths.
I will not be afraid. No harm will come to me. I must be brave.
Gil opened the door. Even with fear seeming to crush her under a great weight, grinding against the top of her skull, she was absolutely powerless to resist the attraction of that dark, damp place.
Where are they? This isn’t right.
The cells were gone. Nothing was the same as it had been when she last visited the forbidden place. The stairway was now so narrow that she had to edge down sideways with the walls pressing against her.
Instead of opening out into a labyrinth of small corridors and barred cell doors, there was merely a single flimsy curtain of cloth stretched across the bottom of the stairs. Gil did not understand. This was not how it was supposed to be. Something was wrong.
‘You came back,’ a voice called from behind the curtain.
The voice was sweet nectar dripping through Gil’s ears and warming her whole body. She knew then why she had returned. Nothing could keep her away from the sound of that voice.
Let me touch you. Let me know you.
Several pairs of heavy hobnailed boots thundered at the flagstones above her head. The other guards had discovered her treachery and would be coming to seize her. She did not care. She could not care while that voice continued to caress her ears. So tender. Impossibly gentle.
The guards halted at the top of the stairs and one swore in fury upon seeing the open door. Let them be angry. Let them drag her into a stinking cell to rot until disease ripped the life from her body. She would not care.
‘Can I see you?’ Gil asked. ‘Please, let me see you.’
‘Can you see me now?’ the echo replied.
Gil’s heart hammered inside her chest as she heard the inmate’s long hair rustle like falling feathers behind the curtain. Her hands moved under the momentum of her desire, shaking with eagerness, and tore away the veil. She did not even notice the black key pressed inside her palm.
Light exploded outwards from the space beyond with such force that it rent a great crack in the stonework. The chasm tore through the middle of the stairway and cleaved the tower down its western side.
In an instant, Gil ceased to be. The light bore her away into nothing, cut her to mere splinters and blew her out onto the gusting wind. A troop of guards howled in agony behind her. They fell apart like wooden soldiers being crushed beneath a blacksmith’s hammer.
Something moved in the dark which followed the light. It was something like a shadow with human form. But there was nobody to arrest its escape and it passed through the split walls of the tower unchallenged.
Everything had passed beyond the bleakest shade of black into absolute nothingness. Whoever the person had been, they were not any more. It was far grander than silence, more total than blindness. But after maybe an eternity, maybe an hour, there was a stir.
Gil could suddenly feel herself. Or, more accurately, she could feel parts of herself. She was scattered in a thousand pieces across a tremendous void of black nothingness, but slowly she was being pulled back together.
Someone held a part of her in one hand. She tried to plead with them to be gentle, not to harm her any more, but she had neither voice nor movement to communicate with. Like a potter throwing together lumps of wet clay in his workshop, the healing hands crushed Gil back into a form which was human.
Stop. Let me rest. I can’t take this. No, not again!
Her senses gradually returned. First there was the burning ache in every inch of her new body, more agony than any person could bear. Then there was the smell of raw flesh and hot, acrid smoke filling her nostrils.
Hearing brought to her a roaring clamour of sounds which threatened to split her eardrums, no louder than the whisper of the wind to one used to having ears. Sight was a blessing when it came, because standing over her was the wonderful being with bright hair.
It had tempted her. It had tricked her and it had killed her. But it had brought her back from the void, returned her to life, and she loved it with more fierce passion than could be contained inside her chest.
When her voice returned, Gil screamed. She screamed for as long as her breath lasted and when it had run out, she screamed in silence. But she was alive.
Gil followed her love through field and forest, over river and mountain. She was her loyal companion, her obedient shadow. Every step she took was guided by the flowing golden hair, shining in the sunlight ahead of her. They were as one, inseparable after a lifetime of never having known each other. It was like floating on a sea of pure bliss.
I can see you. I can feel you with me. Don’t let it end. Give us an eternity together and it will be too short.
She was so caught up in thoughts and feelings sweet enough that they stuck to her tongue like honey, that she did not see the danger until it was too late.
A ring of shields, a net of crossed spears and a fence of sharpened iron descended around them. She saw warriors, proud and tall with the royal colours of the Wizard King emblazoned on surcoats over thick armour plate.
A man stepped out from between the ranks of soldiers and into the clearing. He regarded Gil with mournful, piercing grey eyes. Inside those pale orbs, power and sadness were intertwined.
‘Who are you?’ the Wizard King asked.
‘My name is Gil, I was a turnkey at the Tower. Will you kill us?’
His brows lifted when she spoke the last word and his steely eyes scanned the clearing. One long, wizened finger lifted and hooked through the end of his flowing silver beard.
You may kill us, but you can never separate us. We are together now. Our love cannot be unbound, false king.
‘Would you point out your companion to me?’ he asked.
Gil raised her hand to indicate where her love stood, and just as she did so, the shadow flitted out of sight. As the flash of golden light disappeared, darkness seemed to descend around her.
‘I’m very sorry.’ the Wizard King said, mournful, and his dead grey eyes showed he spoke the truth.
As he spoke, he pulled his finger free from the tangled grey hairs and directed it at Gil. She turned to look behind her and saw only the pointed spears and sharp swords of his men. Then Gil looked down and saw the dark swathes of blood staining her front.
‘This isn’t mine.’ she whispered. ‘I didn’t do this.’
‘I’m very sorry,’ he said again. ‘She is inside you and likely has been for a long time now. That is how these things survive. I am sorry. Will you forgive us?’
Gil nodded dumbly, barely able to comprehend what was being said.
Why should I forgive you? Filth. Coward. False king. Kill me if you must. You cannot part us now.
She heard the crossbows clanking and the steel-tipped bolts whirring through the air, as though it were all happening many leagues away from where she stood. Gil felt the needle-sharp points pierce her flesh and saw them punch through her love’s chest.
No pain. Bright golden hair hung limp, marred by freshly spilled blood. A distorted world, obscured by mist. Falling and flying all at once.
A sensation began to lift Gil up, a feeling of warmth spreading through her body. She knew she was dying. But there, wrapped around her and sharing every corner of her being, was her love. They fell together. Died together.
It had always been that way. Their destiny. Her fate.